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Have you ever seen a bald eagle soar over a football stadium or baseball field during the national anthem? Chances are, this eagle was “Challenger”. Widely known for his appearances at sporting events all over the country and on television, Challenger is the most famous bald eagle in the world! This celebrity bird is the first bald eagle in American history to be trained to free-fly into sports stadiums and arenas during The Star-Spangled Banner. You can see Challenger in action in the video below:
Here in the Smoky Mountains, Challenger is something of a hometown hero! This famous bird is cared for by the American Eagle Foundation, a nonprofit that has partnered with the Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge. Visit My Smokies did a little research to bring you information on Challenger’s story and how you can meet this majestic bird while you’re in town.
Why Challenger Left the Wild
Challenger was born in the wild in 1989 in Louisiana. One day, during a particularly powerful storm, the baby bird was blown from his nest and left to the mercy of the elements. Luckily, some local people found the infant eagle and took him in.
While Challenger’s foster parents may have saved his life, this also had some unintended consequences. Because Challenger was only 3 – 5 weeks old at this time, he “imprinted” on the people who were taking care of him. This means that the young eagle recognized the humans as his parents and came to believe that he is also a human.
Scientists attempted to release Challenger back into the wild on three occasions, but the bird’s unusual upbringing made the transition back to nature impossible. Rather than hunting like a normal eagle, Challenger would fly towards unsuspecting people and beg for food. This habit nearly got Challenger killed by a startled man, so Challenger was entrusted to the American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge.
How Challenger Became a Star
Under the care of the AEF, Challenger flourished. He was glove trained and appeared at many educational events to promote the protection of wild eagles. Challenger was so well trained that Al Cecere, the founder of the AEF, began to contemplate a new role for the bird.
Capitalizing on the bald eagle’s status as one of the most iconic American symbols, Cecere devised a plan for Challenger to fly through sports stadiums during the national anthem. Challenger premiered at the Bassmaster Classic in Greensboro, NC in 1995 and received an enthusiastic response. Since then, Challenger has performed over 350 free flight demonstrations. Some of his biggest venues include:
- Presidential Inaugurations
- Five MLB World Series
- Fiesta Bowls
- NFL Pro-Bowls
- NCAA Men’s Final Four tournaments
- The Daytona 500
- Good Morning America
- The David Letterman Show
- Larry King Live
With all of his public appearances, Challenger has become a bonafide celebrity. His likeness even appears on speciality Tennessee license plates and speciality coins issued by the U.S. mint!
Where to See Challenger and the AEF Eagles in Pigeon Forge
There are many opportunities to see the birds from the American Eagle Foundation in Pigeon Forge, and you may even get the chance to see Challenger himself!
Free Tours of the AEF Headquarters
The AEF offers free tours of its headquarters at 2957 Veterans Boulevard, which is just a few minutes away from the Dollywood theme park. Tours must be requested at least seven days in advance by filling out this online form. If you specifically want to meet Challenger during your visit, be sure to indicate this on the form so the folks at the AEF can let you know if he is available for your prefered dates. Tours are typically given Monday through Thursday at 9:30 a.m., but afternoon and weekend tours are sometimes available.
Eagle Mountain Sanctuary at Dollywood
Visitors to Dollywood can see a number of AEF birds at the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary section of the park. This beautiful sanctuary is the largest exhibit of non-releasable bald eagles in the United States. All of the eagles housed at Dollywood are permanently disabled and would be unable to fend for themselves in the wild. A highlight of visiting the sanctuary is seeing the nesting eagles: birds who mated at Dollywood and are now raising eaglets of their own!
“Wings of America” Birds of Prey Show at Dollywood
Another great way to see the AEF eagles at Dollywood is the “Wings of America” show. This open-air performance features eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures, owls, and other birds of prey. Some of the stars of the show even soar around the theater, which is sure to delight the kids in your family! The Wings of America show runs at Dollywood from mid-March through the end of October.
To prepare for your next visit to Dollywood, check out these 15 Tips and Tricks for Saving Money at the Theme Park!